My mother, the terrorist and other successful families

Nepotism is by no means limited to Japan, but it does push it a bit


An old saying in Japanese goes, “Oya no hikari wa nanahikari,” literally, “A parent’s light is [as good as] seven lights.” In other words, children who play their cards right can bask in the glow of their parent’s fame.

Whether these children deserve such attention is, of course, another matter entirely. I find it rather irritating to be served up incessant reminders of the media’s eagerness to confer status on the nondescript offspring of famous, or notorious, parents.

As is well known, politics in this country — not unlike the United States — is essentially a family-run business. Although a few critics occasionally grumble about the effects of so-called “inheritance politics” on Japanese democracy, it is estimated about 40 percent of the members of the National Diet inherited their seat from a relative. (The remaining 60 percent seem to be either former bureaucrats, pro wrestlers or TV quiz show panelists).

Some of the more illustrious examples include Prime Minister Koizumi, a third-generation Diet member, and former Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka, whose late father was driven from office on charges of corruption.

Shortly after the late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi died three years ago this month, no one was the least bit surprised when his 26-year-old daughter Yuko — despite a complete lack of experience in politics — announced she would run for his vacant Diet seat. Yuko proved a shoo-in.

Nepotism is no less rampant in show business.

Take Kazushige Nagashima, son of Shigeo Nagashima. Idolized as “moeru otoko” (smoldering man) and “Mr. Giant” during his illustrious pro baseball career with the Yomiuri baseball club, Papa Nagashima certainly earned his place in the sun. Kazushige, on the other hand, proved a mediocre ballplayer. So banking on his old man’s fame, he made the move to TV, where he appears as a show host and acts in dramas. Nothing personal, Kazu-kun, but when I see you on TV, I reflexively reach for the “remo-kon.”

If you’re looking for a more extreme example of this, there is Kotaro Koizumi, the 25-year-old son of the present prime minister. Sporting a frizzy mane of hair to remind people he’s indeed a chip off his old man’s block, Kotaro shamelessly harnessed the prestige of his father’s office as a launching pad to a showbiz career. He has appeared in commercials for a low-calorie malt beverage (Suntory) and sugar-free chewing gum (Meiji Seika) and has acted in serial dramas on three TV networks.

In fairness to the prime minister, papa didn’t brazenly promote his own offspring.

But never have I seen a more persuasive example of the utter goofiness exemplified by this propensity to accord second-hand fame on the offspring of newsmakers than the case of May Shigenobu. This is a case where the term “blood ties” can certainly be taken literally. For over two decades, a photo of May’s mother, Fusako, graced the bulletin board at Interpol as one of the world’s most wanted terrorists.

Back in 1971, Fusako Shigenobu headed overseas to embark on her own crusade to right the world’s wrongs, as one of the principals of several radical groups known collectively as the Japanese Red Army. For over two decades, along with Italy’s Brigada Rossa and Germany’s Bader-Meinhof gang, Shigenobu and her revolutionaries flitted around the third world, occasionally emerging to wreak havoc.

Their airline hijackings and embassy hostage takeovers, carried out between August 1975 and September 1977, cost the Japanese government international loss of face, and its treasury tens of millions of dollars. These efforts won freedom for no fewer than 16 terrorists languishing in prison, who, upon release, resumed their criminal activities abroad.

Fusako was arrested in November 2000 after sneaking back into Japan on a forged passport. May arrived a few months afterwards and has since gone around telling anyone who will listen that her mom was actually a sweet, loving and attentive mother, and deserves a fair shake.

Considering the fact that Shigenobu mere has been something less than an upstanding member of Japanese society, I fail to comprehend why the government so readily acknowledged her daughter’s claim to citizenship and admitted her into the country.

But Japanese seem to have a rapt fascination with “haafu,” as those of mixed ancestry are referred to, and her young, pretty, exotic face, combined with her mother’s notoriety, earned her a stream of media interviews. Recently she made the jump to TV, appearing on the April 26 installment of TV Asahi’s “Asa Made Nama Terebi” program, where the young Shigenobu was billed as a journalist.

May, by the way, has said her mother named her after May 30, 1972. On that supposedly auspicious date, three soldiers of the “United Red Army,” dressed in business suits arrived at Tel Aviv’s Lod Airport, removed automatic weapons and hand grenades from their check-in baggage and began blasting away at arriving passengers. When the smoke cleared, two of the three Japanese radicals and 26 people (most of whom were U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land) were dead, and over 100 more wounded.

May has remarked, “My mother, her comrades — that whole period of political resistance — have received very bad press. But there are two sides to every story.”

Let me get this straight, May; are you suggesting the suicide mission against an air terminal full of civilians never happened? Or that the newspapers somehow reported it wrong? I don’t think so. I’m afraid efforts to put a revisionist spin on wanton slaughter simply won’t wash. And how do you reconcile your purported status here as “journalist” with your political activities — particularly your apparent reluctance to disavow terrorism and involvement in a Japanese-language Web site that’s campaigning for a boycott of American products because they’re sold in Israel?

The last time I checked, the Lod airport victims were still dead.

Had they been Japanese, instead of Americans and Israelis, I suspect the local media might be just a little less eager to wax nostalgic over Fusako Shigenobu’s unrepentant radicalism — and a lot less eager to accord her daughter celebrity status.